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Hester and relevance

scarletletter_209x300Recently, I co-taught a course with a colleague from the BU English department (I’m in English education) about teaching American literature. A great deal of time is spent in the course considering what ‘counts’ as American literature, and my colleague convinced me we should read The Scarlet Letter. We chose this novel as a highly traditional, oft-taught example of high school American literature study, and I was interested to revisit a book that I absolutely hated in high school.

My memory of TSL is one of a book that had little to do with me and my life, a story of a woman who says little as she is treated unfairly by a number of people. I remember getting through it slowly, like wading through mud, and I remember adolescent me thinking that this book written in the 1850s about the 1640s had nothing to do with my present. I was unsure what to expect as I (willingly) revisited it with our students.

What We Saw by Aaron HartzlerBut, it just so happens that my first rereading of The Scarlet Letter coincided with the release of Aaron Hartzler’s book, What We Saw. I’ve written here before about Aaron Hartzler and my appreciation for his first book, and I anxiously awaited his new release. The day it came out, I eagerly settled in to read. And in an unexpected twist, reading the two of them together gave me a new perspective about the classic and made me consider ideas about relevance.

We are still talking about women and girls, and whether we treat men and women equally in the world. We have conversations about rumors and gossip and reputations, and as I read What We Saw, I had a new perspective on Hester, who upon this reading, felt more relevant than I’d like, more relevant than I remembered. The books aren’t about the same thing, but they are about shame and guilt and regret in a sexist world. They are about whose truth matters.

And so I think about modern texts and how they continue a conversation with Hawthorne from long ago. I left my reading of these two books feeling sad about Hester’s relevance. Because I’m totally convinced now as an adult that she is.
Christina Dobbs
Christina Dobbs
Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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